It’s pretty safe to assume that Mark Levin hates President John Tyler. Listening to Levin on his radio show, his television program, or in interviews, he routinely names Tyler as a failed President and one of the country’s worst, each and every time he gets a chance.
In 2013, when asked by Neil Cavuto on Fox News where he thought Barack Obama will be ranked as an American President, Levin stated, “Depends on who writes the history books. If the liberals write it? The greatest president in history. If serious people write it? He will be down there with John Tyler and James Buchanan.”[i]
In 2022, Levin said of Joe Biden, “He’s the John Tyler of our time, the James Buchanan of our time.”[ii]
As for James Buchanan, it’s likely Levin, who hails from New York and admires Lincoln, hates him for the same reason every Yankee does. As Clyde Wilson has pointed out, Buchanan refused to invade the South, so he is most assuredly a failed President.
But historical facts tell a different tale about Tyler from the one spun by Levin and by others. Despite his negative opinions, it’s likely that Mark Levin could not hold a meaningful discussion about President Tyler nor could he name a single accomplishment of his administration, for he never points out why he detests him. The likely reasons have very little to do with his presidency.
Aside from being a strict Jeffersonian, and a dyed-in-the-wool Southerner, which are both strikes against him, Tyler was a nullifier, supporting John C. Calhoun over Andrew Jackson during the nullification crisis in 1832-1833; he later appointed the hated Calhoun as Secretary of State in 1844; and, most notoriously, he was elected to a seat in the Confederate House of Representatives in 1861, but died before he could take office.
This last fact seems to be particularly infuriating for many Tyler haters. Indeed, as Tyler biographer Edward Crapol has written, “Tyler’s historical reputation has yet to fully recover from that tragic decision to betray his loyalty and commitment to what he had once defined as ‘the first great American interest’—the preservation of the Union.” In a word, Tyler committed treason.[iii]
A 2013 Washington Post article was headlined this way: “John Tyler, traitor? Well, yes, actually …” The author referenced a Smithsonian book on presidential trivia that contains this juicy tidbit about Tyler: “the only president to commit a public act of treason against the U.S. government.” In fact, Tyler critics are quick to point out that he is the only US President who was not honored in Washington DC upon his death, which took place in 1862. And why is that, we may ask? Because he was a citizen of another country when he died, which, by definition, means that he could not have committed treason. But that doesn’t stop his haters from hating on him.[iv]
Northwestern Law Professor Steven Lubet believes Tyler is worse and more traitorous than even Donald Trump. “Tyler actually tried to destroy the Union by joining the Confederacy’s war of treason in defense of slavery. Tyler’s treachery is worth remembering as a warning about the real danger a former president can pose,” he wrote in a piece on NBCNews.com in September 2022.[v]
Here are a few more zingers in Lubet’s piece:
“Although Trump may never disgrace the presidency as thoroughly as Tyler did, the stain of his actions will mar the legacy of all of his fellow Republicans if they don’t try to stop him before he comes closer. Members of the party of Lincoln would serve themselves and their country best by demonstrating allegiance to democracy rather than to Trump.”
Tyler’s “treason ended only with his death just a few days before the Confederate legislature convened for the first time in Richmond, Virginia.”
So, for many Tyler detractors, they don’t really cite much from his three years and eleven months in the White House; it’s his Southern birth and Southern ideals they hate most. Oh, and he was a slaveholder who supported the Confederacy. That’s enough these days to put you in the “bad” or “failed” category of US Presidents, no matter the number of accomplishments in office.
Leftwing historians, though, have taken their own potshots at Tyler and his presidency. Robert J. Spitzer, author of The Presidents and the Constitution, writes that “despite his adroitness in establishing that he had inherited complete presidential power when his predecessor died in office, Tyler became a weak and maladroit chief executive during his own time in the White House.”[vi]
David P. Callahan, in an article for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography in 2021, stated, “Without much political backing, Tyler achieved only two lasting accomplishments – the presidential succession precedent and the annexation of Texas.”[vii]
Biographer Robert Seager writes, “His countrymen generally remember him, if they have heard of him at all, as the rhyming end of a catchy campaign slogan.” Tyler “was neither a great President nor a great intellectual. … his administration has been and must be counted an unsuccessful one by any modern measure of accomplishment.”[viii]
William Freehling, a professor emeritus at Kentucky, writes for the Miller Center: “William Henry Harrison’s death demonstrated for the first time the importance of nominating a vice president who actually was qualified for the presidency. Once in office, many Americans felt that John Tyler lacked the temperament and political skills to be chief executive.” How Freehling would know this is left unexplained.
After praising Tyler for declaring himself President, rather than being an “acting” chief executive, “his greatest contribution to the office,” Freehling digs in. “Unfortunately, Tyler proved much better at taking over the presidency than at actually being President. Once in the office, he refused to politically compromise his positions with Congress—a vital presidential skill.” For Freehling, it was this “very stubbornness that undermined Tyler’s work as President.”
“Even by the time he took office, America was moving past John Tyler. Much of the South’s political power had been drained into the West, qualms about slavery were growing, and the United States was utilizing an increasingly nationalist, activist system of government. A states’ rights championing, slave-owning plantation aristocrat from Virginia was, by 1841, largely out of touch with the America outside of his South. His affinity for the old southern way of life gave him little connection with citizens living outside of it. Taking office in an increasingly sectionalized United States, John Tyler’s failures as chief executive are far from surprising.”[ix]
Yet Freehling fails to explain why the country, immediately after Tyler, elected another states’ rights champion and slave-holder as President, James K. Polk, then continued to elected Presidents who held fast to the Southern tradition until 1860, including a slaveholder in Louisiana named Zachary Taylor in 1848.
But these anti-South views are typical of academia. In the latest CSPAN ranking in 2021, Tyler came in at number 39 out of 44, just above his presidential running mate, William Henry Harrison, which hardly seems fair to poor Old Tip, but also ahead of Donald Trump, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and Levin’s other nemesis, James Buchanan.[x]
In a 2004 survey by the Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society, published as a book, entitled Presidential Leadership, which one might conclude is a bit more to the Right than CSPAN, Tyler came in at number 34 out of 43. The essay by John S. Baker, Jr., a law professor at LSU, criticized Tyler for abandoning his strict constructionist principles. “Tyler’s construction of the Constitution, which made him president rather than acting president; his exercise of the veto for nonconstitutional reasons; and the incorporation of Texas without a treaty were not examples of ‘strict construction,’ in the sense of narrow construction,” he writes. “Tyler’s presidency demonstrated the difficulty of operating as a Jeffersonian republican within a constitutional system derived from different principles.”[xi]
But critics and their strange notions aside, John Tyler was, in fact, one of our best Presidents. And a number of conservative historians and scholars in recent years have taken note. Brion McClanahan stated in his book, 9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America, and four who tried to save her, that Tyler “was arguably the best president in American history – according to the Constitution as ratified.”[xii]
According to Ivan Eland, in Recarving Rushmore, John Tyler was the best President, who Eland labeled “excellent.” Robert Spencer ranked him 8th, in the category of “very good for America.” Larry Schweikart gave him a grade of B+ in Regnery’s P.I.G. on the Presidents.[xiii]
What do these people know that Levin doesn’t? He claims to be a conservative too. So why the negativity on the remarkable life of John Tyler?
John Tyler was born in Charles City County, Virginia on March 29, 1790. In fact, he was born in the same county as William Henry Harrison. He came from a very distinguished family. His father, John Tyler, Sr., served as Speaker of the Virginia State House, then as Governor, and later a federal judge, before his death in 1813. In fact, the senior Tyler was a friend of Thomas Jefferson, roomed with him at William and Mary, and later served in the legislature with Benjamin Harrison V, William Henry Harrison’s father.
The junior Tyler also attended William and Mary, then studied law with his father but also with Edmund Randolph, the first Attorney General of the United States, to became a lawyer himself. He was elected to the State House in 1811 at the age of 21, two terms in the US House from 1816 to 1821, then a term as Virginia’s governor from 1825 to 1827. He then moved to the US Senate, where he remained until 1836, including a stint as President Pro Tempore in 1835. And this is the man William Freehling considers unqualified to be President of the United States.
It was during his time in the Senate that Tyler stood with Calhoun and South Carolina in their attempts to nullify the federal tariff. When the Senate voted on the Force Bill, to give Jackson the authority to use military force to collect the tariff, Tyler was the only Senator to vote against it, as it passed 32 to 1. Calhoun and thirteen of his followers did not vote, walking off the Senate floor in protest.
Tyler’s break from the authoritarian Jackson was so complete that in 1836, when the Senate decided to vote to expunge the official record of Jackson’s censure, Tyler refused to do it, defying the instructions from the Virginia legislature. He resigned his Senate seat instead and left the Democratic Party. He eventually joined the Whigs and was close to Henry Clay, even though they didn’t see eye-to-eye on every issue.
With Democrats in disarray in 1840, the Whigs saw their chance to capture the White House for the first time. During the Whigs’ first presidential campaign four years earlier, when they didn’t feel strong enough to win outright with one nominee, they attempted to split the vote by nominating several candidates, each from different sections of the country, in order to give them the best chance to defeat Jackson’s handpicked successor, Vice President Martin Van Buren. It didn’t work. Four years later, with the country in the grip of the Panic of 1837, and “Martin Van Ruin” taking the blame, the Whigs felt much stronger, deciding to nominate Harrison in 1840, who had finished second to Van Buren in 1836.
Harrison was an ally of Webster in the factious Whig Party, and he would later name the Massachusetts Senator as his Secretary of State. To placate Clay’s faction, the party decided it best to name a Clay man to the number two spot. Whigs turned to John Tyler. And he was there for one reason: to gain Southern votes. Though Harrison was from a distinguished Virginia family, he had been territorial governor of Indiana, when he won the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, and was then living in Ohio, where he served the people in both houses of Congress, so Southern Whigs weren’t too thrilled by his nomination, favoring Henry Clay instead. Tyler would help soothe hurt feelings and perhaps also bring along some disgruntled Southern Democrats, who might not be too thrilled with Old Kinderhook.
Tyler may have been a Whig for the simple reason of political expediency, but he was, in truth, still a strict Southern Democrat of the Jeffersonian stripe in his political philosophy, and Whigs knew this when they nominated him, so the charge of betraying his party’s principles, which has come from some of his critics, hardly rings true. The Whig ticket of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!” won handily that November.
With the advent of the Harrison Administration on March 4, 1841, Tyler did what all Vice Presidents did in those days. With the Senate not due to meet until December, unless called into a special session by the President, Tyler was at his home in Williamsburg with little to do. He received word on April 5 that President Harrison had died of pneumonia, just a month and a day in office.
Tyler was the first Vice President to assume office upon a vacancy in the presidency. But within hours of Harrison’s tragic death, a constitutional issue arose: Was Tyler to be President, or remain as Vice President and serve as an “Acting President” with all presidential authority until the next election, which would be nearly four years away, or even a special election? The Constitution was unclear as to what exactly should happen in such a scenario. Article II, Section I, Clause 6 reads:
“In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President…”
It is a vague phrase and nowhere mentions “Acting President” or a special election for a new chief executive.
Tyler, though, wasted little time in declaring himself President, took the oath of office on April 6, met with the Cabinet, and moved into the White House. During that first Cabinet meeting, when told how the Whigs viewed the presidency, essentially as subservient to Congress and with an equal vote in Cabinet meetings, Tyler declared forcefully, “I, as President, shall be held responsible for my administration. I shall be pleased to avail myself of your counsel and advice. But I can never consent to being dictated to as to what I shall do or not do. When you think otherwise, your resignations will be accepted.”[xiv]
Congress, after some tense debate, especially in the Senate, passed a resolution declaring Tyler the President of the United States. Some, though, would never accept it.
John Quincy Adams continued to refer to him as “Acting President,” an attitude that seems a bit odd given the manner in which Mr. Adams obtained the Presidency in 1824. “Tyler is a political sectarian, of the slave-driving, Virginia, Jeffersonian school principled against all improvement, with all the interests and passions and vices of slavery rooted in his moral and political constitution – with talents not above mediocrity,” said the former President in 1841. Many of Tyler’s opponents referred to him as “His Accidency.”[xv]
Nevertheless, John Tyler was the 10th President of the United States and soon began acting like it.
Henry Clay had been thwarted twice in his attempt at the White House, but when Harrison was elected, the Kentucky Senator believed he would be the next best thing, essentially the “Mayor of the Palace,” directing the elderly, pliable President, who was 68 years old. Clay would most assuredly run the show.
But now that John Tyler was at the helm, Clay’s hopes were dashed. At first, though, it seemed likely that Tyler would adhere to the Whig platform, given his close friendship with Clay, but it didn’t take long before the new President had upset nearly everyone in his party.
Perhaps the biggest plum for Whigs was a national bank. Still smarting over Jackson’s killing of the Second Bank of the United States, Clay now tried to re-institute a Third Bank of the United States. The Whig congressional majority soon passed a bank bill and sent it to the President. And this became the first bill vetoed by President Tyler.[xvi]
Clay thought he had Tyler’s assurance that he would approve a new national bank and the veto angered the Kentucky Senator. But the Whigs tried a different tactic, calling the bank a “fiscal corporation” in a new bill, an obvious attempt to fool Tyler. The description of the proposal was even less threatening: “To provide for the better collection, safekeeping, and disbursement of the public revenue, by means of a corporation to be styled the Fiscal Corporation of the United States.” Tyler didn’t fall for it and once again vetoed the bank bill.[xvii]
Henry Clay’s anger now boiled over. He persuaded the entire Cabinet, except Secretary of State Daniel Webster, to resign, thinking this would force Tyler to step down, yet it only gave the President the golden opportunity to name his own men to these important posts. Two days later, on September 13, 1842, Whig leaders, led by Clay, met at the Capitol and literally read Tyler out of the party. The House began an impeachment inquiry, a first for any President, which went nowhere. But none of it fazed John Tyler.
Tyler was a very strict Jeffersonian when it came to other aspects of the economy and he gets very little credit for his superb handling of it. In the midst of the depression, the federal government ran short of revenue but also spent too much. Clay’s Compromise Tariff of 1833 had dropped duties to 20 percent and many felt that did not bring in enough revenue to meet the government’s legitimate needs.
The Whigs sent Tyler two tariff bills that he vetoed, mainly because both contained provisions for the distribution of the proceeds from federal land sales that Tyler disapproved of. But Tyler reluctantly signed the Tariff Act of 1842, which raised rates to 32 percent on average, with the land distribution provision removed.[xviii]
Some economists have tried to argue that the tariff increase hurt imports and the overall economy but the evidence doesn’t suggest such an outcome. By contrast, total government revenue increased after implementation of the tariff hike, from $16.8 million in 1841 to $29.9 million in 1845, as the economy improved. Custom receipts also rose, from $14.4 million to $27.5 million during Tyler’s years at the helm.[xix]
Like Jefferson, Tyler keep spending tightly controlled. In 1841, the year Harrison and Tyler came into office, federal spending was at $26.5 million, up from $24.3 million in 1840, Van Buren’s last full year in the White House. The deficit in 1841 was $9.7 million, nearly double what it had been the year before, when it sat at $4.8 million. By the time Tyler left office in 1845, federal spending had been slashed to $22.9 million with a surplus of a little more than $7 million in the treasury. The panic was most certainly over.[xx]
Most of the spending cuts came via Tyler’s reduction of the number of US troops, from 12,000 to 8,000 soldiers. This was owing to Tyler’s belief in a restrained, non-interventionist foreign policy.[xxi]
Tyler ended the Second Seminole War, one of the bloodiest conflicts up to that time, and without a harsh policy toward the Indians. In fact, he allowed them to remain on their reservation in Florida rather than push them to lands west of the Mississippi. He negotiated a trade treaty with China, opening it to American commerce, and without entangling the United States in the internal affairs of other nations.[xxii]
His administration negotiated the Webster-Ashburton Treaty with Great Britain, which settled a nasty border dispute between New Brunswick, Canada and Maine. This treaty finalized the border between the United States and Canada. The treaty also contained an agreement between the United States and Britain to enforce the ban on the Atlantic slave trade.
Tyler also extended the Monroe Doctrine over Hawaii, the seldom mentioned Tyler Doctrine. Some conservative and libertarian scholars have criticized this move as an aggressive use of foreign policy but Robert Spencer has a different take on it. “By invoking the Monroe Doctrine to warn the British not to interfere with the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Hawaii, he made it clear to the British that the [Webster-Ashburton] treaty did not give them a free hand to meddle at the expense of American interests.”[xxiii]
In perhaps his greatest feat as President, Tyler annexed the Republic of Texas, completing it just before he left office in 1845. After the tragic explosion onboard the USS Princeton, which killed Secretary of State Abel Upshur, and could have killed Tyler as well, the President named Calhoun to head the State Department. This galvanized abolitionist, and Northern, opposition to Texas annexation, which helped defeat the proposed treaty in the Senate, which Upshur had concluded with Sam Houston. Undeterred, Tyler and Calhoun used a simple congressional resolution, which needed only a majority vote of both houses, to bring Texas into the Union.
Tyler critics have used this to paint him as a hypocrite on strict construction but the Constitution is not specific on how new states are to be added to the Union. Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1 is fairly simple: “New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union.” With no mechanism spelled out, Congress admitted Texas by joint resolution. It did not need to be accomplished by a treaty.
President Tyler also dealt with an internal uprising in Rhode Island, the Dorr Rebellion, and used restraint rather than aggression. Thomas Dorr led a movement in Rhode Island to expand the franchise, since only six percent of residents could vote. The governor asked for military assistance but Tyler refused to intervene in a sovereign state since he didn’t view it as an actual insurrection, at least not yet. The situation was finally resolved with Dorr’s arrest but suffrage was also expanded in Rhode Island with a new state constitution.[xxiv]
John Tyler was a man of principle. He could have signed Clay’s bank bill, the original tariff law, and given the Whigs everything they wanted. By doing this he likely would have secured enough support for the 1844 Whig nomination, giving him a legitimate shot at a second term. But he would not put party above principle and, as a result, he became a man without a party, choosing to retire to his Virginia plantation, which he renamed Sherwood Forest, owing to his new outlaw status.
He was a President who opposed the expansion of federal power by rejecting Whig calls for a new national bank, while cutting spending, slashing the standing army, balancing the budget, and generating a surplus of funds in the treasury. He also established the important precedent of the Vice President becoming President upon a vacancy in the office.
He championed a restrained, non-interventionist foreign policy, solved a dispute with Great Britain, refrained from sending federal troops into a sovereign state over a domestic uprising that had yet to turn violent, and annexed Texas.
And last, but certainly not least, he came out of retirement to preside over a peace conference in Washington DC in 1861, when he was nearly 71 years of age, to try to stave off disunion and war. It failed but it was more of an effort for peace than Lincoln ever made.
And this man is a failure?
The ramblings of the uninformed notwithstanding, John Tyler is a President, and a man, worth celebrating, not condemning.
[iii] Edward P. Crapol, John Tyler: The Accidental President (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 283.
[iv] Washington Post, February 24, 2013.
[vi] Robert J. Spitzer, The Presidents and the Constitution, Volume One: From the Founding Fathers to the Progressive Era (New York: New York University Press, 2020), 136.
[vii] David P. Callahan, “The Constitutional Crisis that Wasn’t,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (Virginia Historical Society, 2021), 151.
[viii] Robert Seager II, And Tyler Too: A Biography of John and Julia Gardiner Tyler (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), xiii-xiv.
[xi] John S. Baker, Jr., “John Tyler,” in Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst in the White House, edited by James Taranto and Leonard Leo (New York: A Wall Street Journal Book, 2004), 59.
[xii] Brion McClanahan, 9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America, and four who tried to save her (Washington, DC: Regnery History, 2016), 209.
[xiii] Ivan Eland, Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty (Oakland, CA: The Independent Institute, 2009), 77; Robert Spencer, Rating America’s Presidents (New York: Post Hill Press, 2020), 109; Larry Schweikart, The Politically Incorrect Guide to The Presidents, Part 1: From Washington to Taft (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing Company, 2017), 133.
[xiv] McClanahan, 212.
[xv] Adams Diary, April 4, 1841: https://www.masshist.org/publications/jqadiaries/index.php/document/jqadiaries-v41-1841-04-04-p295
[xviii] McClanahan, 223-224.
[xix] Historical Statistics of the United States, 1789-1945 (Washington, DC: US Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, 1949), 297-300.
[xxi] Eland, 79.
[xxiii] Spencer, 114.
[xxiv] Eland, 79.